by Timothy Venning (Pen & Sword Books, ISBN 978-1-78159-126-0)
This is a book with a split personality. Some chapters are well structured, taking a single potential change at a time and working it through over a page or two. They use the author’s research into the Hundred Years War well, and increased my knowledge of its events and development.
But other chapters are confused and poorly edited. They pile real and potential timelines together, not giving the reader time to understand their implications. Worse, these chapters have rambling, ill-structured sentences:
“Even had Henry IV been in full health the end of the Welsh war as a major distraction would have brought the prince back to London, with the chance that disillusionment with the state of government and finances in 1407-10 (as expressed in an assertive Parliament) led to a change of ministers and royal permission for the Prince to send aid to the Duke of Burgundy.”
(Lack of internal punctuation and change of tense in the original.)
Phew! And these sections throw in future and past comparisons thick and fast. In the well-edited chapters, it is clear how valuable these comparisons are to illustrate the effect of these factors on the mind-set of the time:
“As with Richard III facing Henry Tudor in 1485, the invader would have a coherent French force to assist him against the incumbent King – a man beset by treachery since his accession and unsure of who to rely on.”
But at other places, they do nothing to clarify the situation, but just throw more dates into the mix. This section, for example, assumes an in-depth knowledge of other parts of English history:
“…previous control of a king’s government by a committee (e.g. 1264 and 1310) had been arranged and exercised by magnates incensed at his ‘favouritism’ and his exclusion of them from the benefits of patronage.”
No doubt those with a broad knowledge of medieval English history will know exactly the significance of those dates (the Second Barons’ War and the Piers Gaveston crisis), but for an interested amateur with a primary focus on a later period (me) they added nothing until I went away and looked them up.
You also need to keep the dates straight in your head as you read. Venning’s narrative covers alternate options for what might have happened, and each one works back and forward through time to explain its development. This means that the next possibility chronologically will refer back to events already passed by the previous departure point – essential, of course, but you need to stay on top of the dates and events to get the most from it.
So would I recommend this book? Yes, if you are prepared to sit down and concentrate on it, ready to work at untangling the sometimes difficult sentence structure and keep the timelines straight in your head. Venning’s approach of laying out the structure of what actually happened as a basis for his alternative events provides a narrative of the real history, and ‘what-ifs’ are always interesting speculation for those who enjoy history. Certainly suitable for those who enjoy academic texts.
And no, not if you are looking for general-knowledge light reading. I have learned a lot from this book, but I feel that I have had to work at it.
Anything with a vague historical bent
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Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives - it's 1183 and we're barbarians.
I have just received (hot off the presses) the WOTR version of the same series.
OSTENDE MIHI PECUNIAM!
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